The opening sentences of Laish, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s fourteenth novel to be published in English translation, are deceptively like those of a typical first-person confessional story:
“My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name. . . . I’ve heard that the name comes from Hungary. Who knows?—my parents died young. A few years ago, I could still see them in a blurred way. Now I’m fifteen, and their features have been effaced from my memory.”
The boy’s engaging, conversational voice, his tragic orphanhood, the focus on his interior life: none prepares us for the novel as a whole. It turns out that Laish will be the faithfully observant narrator of a collective experience, to the point where his personality is virtually relegated to the periphery of the story. But this shift is characteristic of Appelfeld’s method throughout the book, which is to constantly upend the reader’s expectations in favor of striking and uniquely unexpected gestures.
Another such gesture is Appelfeld’s unwillingness to identify the period in which the novel is set (most likely sometime between the world wars). Laish is a member of a convoy of Jewish pilgrims making their way south along the river Prut, through what is now the borderland between eastern Romania and western Moldova. The convoy’s destination is Jerusalem, to which the pilgrims have been bidden to emigrate by Shimon the Righteous, the holy man who once led them. After Shimon’s death, their progress is continually thwarted by conflicts between the group of religious old men who nominally still direct the convoy and the temperamental wagon drivers and corrupt dealers who insist on making lengthy stops at every village, town, or city the convoy passes, to carouse or to conduct trade.
Appelfeld emphasizes this sense of a perpetually postponed goal by having his narrator Laish shift incessantly away from the present tense to relate events that occurred at differing and frequently unspecified times in the past, so that we are sometimes unsure exactly where we are chronologically: although the present action of the novel spans about six months, the narrative encompasses many years. As Laish puts it, “I feel that these years have been solidly planted within me, and that I’ll be with the convoy for the rest of my life.”
One way we know we are making progress through time is the succession of characters to whom Laish is bound as a kind of indentured servant: first Fingerhut, a bitterly angry dealer; then Ploosh, a violent wagon driver; and finally Sruel, also a wagon driver, a convicted murderer who now spends much of his days communing with the falcon with whom he has developed a mystical rapport. Of the three, only Sruel is kind to Laish while at the same time putting him to work; in this combination of traits he resembles another man with a strong influence over the boy: Old Avraham, Laish’s gentle but demanding religion teacher.
As the convoy moves southward throughout the summer and into the fall, from just north of Czernowitz to the port city of Galacz, it encounters one obstacle after another: thieves, flooding, a typhoid epidemic and—casting a pall over everything else—a steady loss of morale and resolve. The number of pilgrims dwindles, from death or defection, until by the time it limps into Galacz, where passage by ship to Jerusalem must be booked, the convoy is less than half the size it was during the summer. But still Laish’s narrative (in the language of Aloma Halter’s measured, often beautiful translation from the Hebrew) maintains its calm, detached observation of hardship: “That night, our wagons were beset by creatures of the darkness who took the form of aggressive beggars, the bitterly disabled, and, most painful of all, child-demons who would thrust their frail hands into our wagons, snatching whatever they could.”
In Galacz, a new challenge awaits: the urgent need to acquire the money necessary to purchase enough tickets for the pilgrims to board the ship to Jerusalem. The convoy begins to sell off its equipment and provisions, and some of the wagon drivers also sell merchandise they have stolen from the city’s stores and warehouses. Sruel seems transformed under the pressure, and commits a desperate, uncharitable act against a defenseless member of the convoy that confirms, by negative example, the truth of one of Old Avraham’s earlier warnings to Laish: “He was sure that if we were strict about saying our prayers, we would leave [Galacz] as new people. One needed only to purify oneself and refine one’s thoughts. The main thing was not to despair, because despair was rooted in impurity.” Here, as elsewhere in Laish, Appelfeld may be intending to impart a lesson about the need to hold to one’s spiritual ideals in the face of competition from the baser human instincts, but if so the lesson is muted, gently implied but never stated outright.
Finally, on the eve of the convoy’s departure from Galacz, Appelfeld ends the novel not with details of the business of setting sail for Jerusalem but with a shocking, discordant, and highly poetic image: the stricken face of Sruel’s unfortunate victim. It’s an indelible moment, and one more example of Appelfeld’s ability to deftly overturn the reader’s expectations. He also leaves unspoken a plain yet disturbing fact: after the arduous 200-mile journey from Czernowitz to Galacz, Jerusalem—the holy place even Sruel once spoke of as the future site of a “different and purified life” for all the convoy’s pilgrims—is still more than a thousand miles away.